Next to Normal

By Philip Pearce

THE NEW PARAPHRASE PRODUCTION at Paper Wing Theatre in Monterey was my second exposure to Next to Normal and the return trip has only deepened my admiration of this moving and imaginative Pulitzer Prize play. To tackle a theme like clinical bipolar disorder in a musical sounds like a recipe for theatrical disaster. That librettist Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt carry it off with such clarity and power looks and sounds to me pretty much like theatrical genius. 

Paraphrase, a very recent production company in town, sings and acts it with a youthful conviction that is becoming a hallmark of their work. Paul Jonathan Davis directs with an eye to quick, cinematic movement on a set that allows for scenes to happen and comment on each other simultaneously in different locations and on different levels. An exciting lighting scheme, the work of James Jones, Jeff Hinderscheid and Dale Thompson, reflects the shifting lights and shadows in the psychic decline, fall and rebirth of an American housewife named Diana Goodman.

Jessica Liang, who played the role last Friday (the show is double cast) is such an open, friendly and level-headed young woman that it’s a tribute to her acting skill that she convinces us—most of the time—that she is descending into a psychosis that eventually calls for electric shock treatment. Liang’s singing is clear and emotionally convincing, though there are times when her light speaking-voice blurs some of Yorkey’s spoken lines. 

Her compassionate husband Dan, played by a stalwart and forceful Jeff Hinderscheid, and her rebellious daughter Natalie, played by lucid and explosive Abbie Giardino, have always known Mom Diana walks an emotional knife-edge. But it becomes clear she needs clinical help when one morning she placidly begins making lunch-time sandwiches by laying out bread slices on the living room floor. 

Diana goes at first to a loopily obsessive pill-pusher named Dr Fine (“My Psychopharmacologist and I”) who supplies most of the story’s comedy. As Dale Thompson peers through his specs and prescribes for the bemused Diana, the rest of the cast become a bizarre song and dance ensemble praising the virtues of present-day barbiturates of choice, ending with a sly side-swipe at Rodgers and Hammerstein by assuring us that “these are a few of my favorite pills.”

Diana soon finds herself in a kind of pharmaceutical stupor that feels worse (“I Miss the Mountains”) than the depths and pinnacles of manic-depression. Encouraged by her sympathetic son Gabe, (a fine, sharp edged performance by Edie Flores) she flushes her medications down the toilet and soon transfers to a new therapist named Dr Madden, also played by the versatile Dale Thompson, this time minus his glasses.   Wiser and more rational than Dr Fine, Madden is nevertheless unaware that being touted as a local psychiatrist rock star produces strobe-lit explosive rock concert hallucinations every time he counsels his new patient.    

Troubled daughter Natalie meanwhile reluctantly invites an ingratiating fellow music student named Henry (lively and lovable Joshua Berndt) to a Goodman family celebration. The occasion brings to light the family tragedy that has triggered Diana’s mental imbalance and built up in Natalie a growing resentment against her mother.  It’s a revelation that is a major dramatic surprise that motivates almost everything that happens subsequently yet is at the same time totally consistent with Diana’s tormented state of mind and that’s all you’ll learn about it from this review.

The story line goes against the current tendency to pillory the human male as predator of the species by drawing a parallel between Dan Goodman’s patient protection and loving emotional support of his wife and boyfriend Henry’s growing commitment to the welfare of Natalie, most movingly expressed in a pair of songs, “Why Stay?” and “A Promise,” sung in different areas of the stage by both couples, each with the same lyrics but emphasizing different elements of the two relationships. 

Next to Normal is also notable in its refusal to slide into the easy sentimental evasions that have marked so much stage and screen psychiatric melodrama, from Hitchcock’s Spellbound to Moss Hart’s Lady in the Dark. Even in the closing moments, with the company united in a song called “Light,” mood, melody and lyrics carry a hope, not a clear assurance, of better things ahead for the Goodmans and those who love them. 

Next to Normal continues at the Paper Wing Theatre Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2 pm until August 25th.